Alison Tilley
Alison Tilley

Amend the Information Bill

The debate about the Secrecy Bill has shifted a little, from “OMG, what were they thinking” to a more nuanced discussion about what outcomes the civil-society coalition really want on the bill.

This is less fun than the first debate, which was a love in where everyone agreed with everyone else, that something must be done. Now we get to what must be done, which is more divisive.

Two outcomes both have supporters. The first is, withdraw. This is Cosatu’s position, and many others. The arguments differ, some say that the bill is unnecessary, and a manifestation of an intention to hide things, which should not be hidden. Alternatively, the bill is so bad it can’t be fixed, and must be completely redrafted, and withdrawn for that purpose.

The second, amend in an open process, also has supporters. I am in the second camp. Why?

Withdrawal usually means the bill goes back into the ministry. Their expertise, such as it is, is secrecy. They are probably not going to do much better in the third round (or is it fourth?) of drafting, than they did before. So it won’t improve, and may even get worse. (Never say it can’t get worse — you will almost invariably be proved wrong.)

And what about scrapping it altogether? The thing is, that leaves in place the 1982 Act and the Minimum Information Security Standards. Unconstitutional and ultra vires.

Well, you might say, scrap them then. Let’s just have PAIA! The thing is, PAIA says certain information should not be disclosed. It doesn’t say who within government can see what information. So the tea lady shouldn’t be able to see the plans for Pollsmoor Prison, an office worker shouldn’t be able to access the list of spies we have in other countries, (assuming we have some outside the country, and they aren’t all spying on each other inside the country), and the list of people who spy for us shouldn’t be lying around in the photocopy room because someone forgot to take it back to the safe.

In fact all this information should be in a safe, or a suitable secured computer. Now you may say, they don’t need a law for that, but god love them, they do. In fact, keeping files, which have disability records in them, in disused, unlocked toilets, on the floor, has seemed like a good idea to some bureaucrats in the past. They need a law which allows you to say, director and above, you get to ask for this file. And then you can’t take it out of the building, and you have to read it at your desk, and when you need to go to the loo, lock your office.

Or alternatively, you may not share your password with anyone, you need to log on from within your office, and you can’t put these files on a flash drive. These rules need to be uniform, and coherent, with minimal secrecy, which is why you need one set of regulations. Regulations need an empowering act. And there we are, back at the act.

Thus an amended bill, not no bill.